I admit it. With close to 20 years of experience doing media relations, I’ve become a bit of a cynic when it comes to the bottom-line usefulness of using the press to advance many health communications and knowledge translation (KT) initiatives. I’ve observed that for the amount of effort that goes into developing a media outreach, the actual measurable outcomes can be pretty lackluster. Too often, even when there’s been a positive media response, it’s questionable whether the exposure has directly resulted in raising awareness, shaping opinion or prompting action among key stakeholders.
Mainstream media’s great strength – the ability to reach many people in one fell swoop – is also its weakness in terms of impact. It’s like a massive drift net floating along, entangling masses of marine life in the hopes of capturing just a few specific fish. And let’s be honest: very few KT projects need to engage the population as a whole.
Media relations work is very resource-intensive and should never be seen as an easy way to free publicity. It takes a ton of prep work before you ever pick up the phone to call a reporter – not only in figuring out your pitch and lining up spokespeople, but also in ensuring that everyone is on board with the plan, including partners, host organizations, community and government stakeholders. And there’s always the distinct possibility that the resulting coverage will be negative, inaccurate or just not what you were hoping for.
In terms of bang for your buck, there may be a whole host of other, less “sexy” approaches that will reap better rewards.
However, media does have certain uses. For KT projects with a large public engagement component, a comprehensive, well-planned media campaign can be very productive. For instance, we employed media very successfully to jump-start a multi-year recruitment drive to encourage all British Columbians aged 35-69 to join the BC Generations Project, the largest cancer prevention study ever conducted in BC.
You may have other reasons for doing media outreach. Positive stories can lend a third-party credibility to your program or your research. Media can provide an avenue for you to publicly acknowledge the contributions of partners and collaborators. It may also provide a springboard for approaching and engaging new stakeholders.
The bottom line is that media doesn’t work well as a standalone endeavour. You absolutely need to have your other KT ducks in a row to support it. This includes having a deep understanding of your target audiences’ demographic and psychographic attributes and clear, consistent messaging that aligns with their knowledge, their beliefs and their motivations. It also requires you to have a range of more targeted communications tools working in concert with your media outreach. These are the tools that will help you effectively deliver those key messages even after the media spotlight has faded.
News stories have a very short shelf life, but an integrated approach will help you get as much mileage as possible from any media exposure. Here are some of my ideas for making use of everything you’ve got to amplify the impact of your media outreach:
- If possible, plan your media outreach to coincide with a relevant health promotion week/month. This may increase the news value of your pitch. Health Canada maintains a comprehensive list: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/calend/index-eng.php
- Make sure your website is ready to support your media relations efforts. This may mean creating a purpose-built site for your KT project, or it could mean staking out your space on a larger organizational site:
- Ensure that your web content is written for a lay audience.
- Encourage interested readers/viewers to learn more about the KT project by providing further information on a separate page on your website. This allows you to track the response from your media efforts.
- Make sure to provide the reporter with the web address for further information – either your home page or a landing page with a simple URL. Remember that a reporter won’t bother including your website information in the story unless it offers something useful to readers/viewers.
- Provide online sharing tools so people can disseminate the information to their networks.
- As soon as the story comes out, promote it on your home page and provide a link to the article or video.
- Share the story with your partner organizations and collaborators and ask them to promote it through their communication vehicles.
- Promote the story to people and organizations using your social media channels – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn – and ask them to share. Track the shares.
- If your media relations efforts fall short and don’t result in media coverage, don’t despair. Develop your own news article (or recycle your news release), post the story on your website and promote it through your social media channels. Again, make sure you track the traffic to the page.
Do you have any other ideas for making the most of media? Let’s discuss!
Photo courtesy of John Morgan.